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How to Establish Your Brand Identity: Small Business Branding Made Simple

Priyanka Prakash

Senior Staff Writer at Fundera
Priyanka is a senior staff writer at Fundera, reporting on business financing, law, and news. Previously managing editor at Fit Small Business, she's also a licensed attorney who served as general counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup. She loves helping entrepreneurs launch, run, and grow their businesses.

Branding is a universal constant in business. The smallest mom-and-pop shop down the street needs a positive brand to thrive, and so do the biggest corporations. No matter what industry you’re in or the size of your company, a positive brand is important for your business’s future.

It would be pretty easy if creating a brand was simply about slapping a logo on your product. But there’s more to it than that. Your brand is what customers, employees, and others who you do business with think about your company. Your brand is basically the equivalent of a personality for a company—the ideals, beliefs, and values that your company projects to the world.

Ideally, your brand is something that you give careful thought to when you first launch your business. But many small business owners get so busy in the day-to-day of running their company that brand development doesn’t enter their thoughts until much later. That’s okay, too. Even if your company has been around for awhile, it’s not too late to consider branding. In fact, just coming to this article means you’re already way ahead in the game!

Here, you’ll learn some basics of branding that will help you establish your brand identity. We even include some fun exercises that will encourage you to think about your brand from different perspectives. Plus, you’ll hear from other small business owners about their brand building strategies.

This is the first in a series of posts on small business branding. This post is about brand development. Part 2 will be about creating your brand assets, and part 3 will discuss cultivating brand loyalty.

Why Small Business Branding Is Important: The Goals of Branding

There are a lot of different opinions out there about what exactly constitutes a brand. Is it your logo? Your font? Your website? Your social media messages? Those are things that implement your brand, but your brand itself comprises the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that people associate with your company.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos defined brand very simply as “what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Seth Godin, a popular entrepreneur and blogger, gives a longer definition:

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter, or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection, or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”

Godin’s definition clarifies the goals of branding. Developing a unique brand sets you apart from competitors, giving customers a reason to prefer you to other businesses. Branding also encourages customers to keep coming to you for products or services by giving them a consistently positive experience.

Your brand shines through in pretty much everything that your business does on a regular basis, including the following four areas:

  • Visual Brand Identity, such as your logo, website, and color scheme
  • Brand Voice, such as your blog posts, mission statement, and website copy
  • Brand Values, such as the types of causes your company supports
  • Brand Personality, such as your company’s culture and customer service philosophy

You can see for yourself the power of branding by asking yourself how you feel about companies that you regularly do business with. For instance, what comes to mind when you think about your favorite beverage or your favorite restaurant? Now, what comes to mind when someone mentions your cable or cell phone company?

The memories and associations that these two brands inspire might be very different. Which one are you more likely to continue doing business with in the long run? Does the logo come to mind, or are there more powerful concepts that you associate with the brand? (We’re willing to bet you know the brand of soft drink pictured below, even though the name is missing on the bottle!) Putting yourself in the shoes of a customer can help you establish a lasting, positive brand identity for your own company.

Start With Your Existing Brand

If you’re launching a new company, you’ll be shaping your brand from the bottom-up. But if your business has been operating for a while, it already has a brand. Starting with what your customers think about your brand currently can help you refine your brand as you grow.

These are some ways to find out what customers think about your brand:

  • Online surveys: Free online survey tools like SurveyMonkey let you ask questions to a cross section of your customers. You can ask both regulars and less frequent customers what adjectives they associate with your brand, what competing brands they shop from, and what they like and don’t like about your company.
  • Search data: Content marketing tools like Google Trends and Google Analytics let you check what terms people are searching for together and what search terms are associated more frequently with certain brands.
  • Social media trends: If your company is active on social media, that can be a great resource for evaluating your current brand identity. Based on which posts received the most and least engagement, you can learn what customers see you as an authority on. Twitter even has a search function for trending tweets, and you can dig deeper into data if you have a paid social media advertising account.

If you have a bigger budget, you can also run a focus group and get your customers more directly involved with your branding and rebranding efforts. But for most small businesses, the options above are cost-effective ways to get insight into your current brand.

small business branding

Do Some Branding Exercises to Establish Your Brand Identity

Once you assess your current brand, you’ll have some idea about how customers currently perceive your company. But you might find that many customers don’t really know you, or they might be confused about what it is that your company actually does.

This is your opportunity to reshape your brand into something you’re proud of. But don’t just rush into creating a new logo or revamping your website. You’ll need to think about your brand from many perspectives and talk about it with many different people. As part of the process, you can do some fun exercises to help you develop a compelling brand.

Here are some branding exercises that can help you figure out your company’s brand identity:

Start With Your Story

Your business’s brand starts with your story. This includes your origin story about who started your business, why, and when. But there’s also the story about what your brand means to your customers.

Maybe your product or service makes it more pleasant for your customers to do a regular activity, like eating or cleaning. Or maybe your product or service brings customers closer with their family members and friends. How your product or service fits into the customer’s life significantly impacts your brand.

Brian Lim, the CEO of iHeartRaves, curators of custom clothing and festival fashion, was part of the “story” that gave life to his company’s brand:

“My girlfriend (now my wife) and I fell in love by going to music festivals. What you wear and how you express yourself at these events is a key part of the overall experience. We would always customize our outfits and wear items you couldn’t find in the local mall. We got compliments and were asked all the time where we got our clothing.

We felt like there a was a huge need in the marketplace that no professional companies were filling, and so we started iHeartRaves.com. I love it because it’s something that I’m truly passionate about. What draws customers to our brand is our mission is to inspire individual creativity and empower self-expression.”

In this example, iHeartRaves’s story is about letting customer express themselves through clothing. To find your business’s story, you should talk to your customers and find out what pain points you’ve resolved for them. It’s great to ask customers in person, but you can also conduct customer surveys or measure trending content to understand how customers are interacting with your brand.

small business branding

Think About Market Positioning

In order to develop your brand, you need to know your target customer. A company that targets millennial consumers, for instance, will use different marketing strategies and communicate differently than one that targets baby boomers.

You can do a fun branding exercise with your team to figure out your market position. Hand out two Post-its to each member of your team (or to everyone in your company if your business is small enough). Ask each person to imagine they’re attending a party and the only people invited are your target customers.

On one Post-it, have people write down how your target customers look. What’s their approximate age? Are they wearing expensive clothes? What kinds of accessories are they carrying? What kind of lingo do they use?

Heather Saulsbury and her family own PNW Bushcraft, an outdoor gear company in Acme, Washington, and their target customers are people who enjoy the outdoors:

“Our family-run gear company was created out of a need for outdoor gear that would hold up in the damp Pacific Northwest. From the very beginning, we wanted our brand to not just be our product but to promote an outdoor lifestyle. We wanted people to feel like they were getting an amazing handmade product that reminded them of simpler times and the joy of just being outdoors.  

We keep that in mind when sharing our brand on social media and with our product images. We continuously promote our company and our lifestyle by sharing our everyday adventures and our gear in action in the outdoors.”

Knowing your ideal customer is very powerful because you can tailor your messaging and all of your brand collateral to a particular set of customers.

small business branding

Find out Your Value-Add

This next exercise encourages you to think about your company’s unique value-add in what may be a crowded field of similar companies. If you do everything just like your competitors, then your customers have no reason to buy your product or service.

To understand how your company stands out, repeat the same exercise as above, except this time imagine that your competitors are on the guest list for the party. How do your competitors look? How do they speak? What’s important to them? This branding exercise will get you thinking about what other companies are doing that you can either emulate or distinguish yourself from.

You can also do a different exercise where you hand out Post-its and ask everyone to write down an adjective that makes your company unique. Are you more modern than competitors? Do you provide better customer service? Do you provide customized products, whereas your competitors are one-size-fits-all?

Eman Zabi, founder of boutique copywriting agency Scribesmith Media & Marketing, says her unique value proposition is an authentic, eclectic voice:

“In an industry that’s saturated with clichés and trite marketing, we wanted to create more authentic voices that spoke to people who weren’t afraid to stand out. As a business that’s promising to help others stand out, we had to make sure we stood out, too. I wanted our brand identity to really capture the fun and vibrancy of the work we do but also allude to the quirkiness of our copy without taking away too much from the professionalism.

The trick was to strike the right balance. Most businesses play it safe. We don’t, and that’s immediately obvious within the first five seconds of a customer landing on our website. We stand out, some people love us, some hate us. And that’s the power of branding. It drives away people who aren’t a good fit and attracts the people who resonate with you and your message.”

Whatever your point of difference is, the point of this branding exercise is to find it and embrace it.

small business branding

Evaluate Past Ups and Downs

Your business’s past successes and failures can help define your brand. If there are certain things that have worked really well for your business in the past, that might be something that you want to emphasize in your brand. And things that you found challenging might inspire and shape your brand in the future.

On a Post-it, write down a few of your proudest moments as a small business owner. What has your company accomplished that’s worth celebrating? On the flip side, you should also think about the times that weren’t so good for your company. Note down any lessons you can learn from.

Eddie Bridgewater, the chief marketing officer at Z Beans Coffee, initially struggled to gain a footing in the coffee import business, but the initial challenges didn’t stop him from staking out a socially conscious coffee brand:

“Z Beans Coffee is one of the only importers of Ecuadorian coffee. Because Ecuador does not have cooperatives in place, the trade of coffee has never prospered. However, we go directly to the farmers of Ecuador and export from our partnered processing facility in Piñas, Ecuador.

Our first major success was getting the first 4,000 pounds out of Ecuador two years ago. Since we pioneered our own supply chain, we were not sure whether or not it would hold up. Furthermore, our founder, Shane, was a student at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, so he did not have an ample amount of experience with import and export. However, the coffee arrived safely, birthing Z Beans Coffee.

Once we realized that there weren’t any other large importers of Ecuadorian coffees, we decided to take on the endeavor. Our customers are drawn to our business by our strong social mission. We are committed to creating opportunities for underserved communities in Ecuador and in the States. We are creating a market for the hard-working farmers in Ecuador and doing our part to create job opportunities for homeless individuals in our community of Macon, Georgia.”

At some point, your brand concept and what your company actually does on a regular basis will collide. And the two things should be in sync with each other. Draw on your successes, learn from your failures, and be transparent with your customers to build up a powerful brand.

 

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Angelino Abad. His hard work is evident in every single cup.

A post shared by Z Beans Coffee (@zbeanscoffee) on

Think to the Future

If the previous exercise was about the past, this next one is about the future. Every good company aspires to be something better (notice we didn’t say bigger, but better). The basics tenets of your brand can remain the same over a long period of time. For example, Apple has built a reputation as an innovative brand for the last 40+ years. However, a brand is something that you’ll want to refine over time as the market and technology change.

Imagine that your company makes front-page news five years from now. Ask yourself what the story is about. A charitable cause that your company aligned with? A product or service that broke new ground in your industry? Raising millions of dollars of venture capital? The answer can give a clue about what you consider central to your brand identity. By thinking about the future now, you can also prevent brand failures and having to rebrand down the line.

For more branding inspiration, here are additional branding exercises to try and questions to ask about your company.

Develop Your Brand Positioning Statement

Once you’ve gone through these brand exercises, you should have a much clearer idea about what your business stands for and what you want to convey to customers through your branding.

At this stage, it’s a good idea to write up a brand positioning statement. This might sound intimidating, but a brand positioning statement is actually quite easy to put together.

Your brand positioning statement should mention the product or service that you provide, your target customer, and the benefit you provide over competitors. You should also briefly mention how your product or service delivers the benefit. You can package all of this into a one- or two-sentence brand positioning statement, like this:

[Brand name] is a [company] that provides [X] with [Y] by [Z].

Here’s an example from Zabi’s copyrighting business:

“The Scribesmith is a boutique copywriting and brand positioning agency that specializes in personality-driven copy. In an industry that’s saturated with clichés and trite marketing, we wanted to create more authentic voices that spoke to people who weren’t afraid to stand out.”

This statement is just two sentences but conveys a lot of information about the Scribesmith brand. The brand is quirky, bold, and authentic and helps clients improve their bottom line through good copy.

Your brand positioning statement will help you focus your messaging as you create your brand assets. We’ll dig into this in more detail in the second part of our branding series. But for now, it helps to think of the brand positioning statement as your north star. All of your advertising, marketing, and promotional efforts should align with and support your statement.

Next Up: Creating Your Brand Assets

If you’ve done your customer analysis and the branding exercises we summarized above, then congratulations—you have established a brand identity for your company! This will go a long way toward your business’s success as you grow. Of course, like most anything in business, a brand isn’t static. You have to refine and adapt your brand as your company grows and as you face new challenges and opportunities.

But the most difficult part in your branding journey is over. The next part—compiling all your brand assets or brand collateral—is easier to do and you can outsource much of the work to experts. That said, making sure the your brand is well-represented and that all your brand assets are consistent with each other takes some planning. This will be the focus of part 2 in this series on small business branding made simple.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Priyanka Prakash

Senior Staff Writer at Fundera
Priyanka is a senior staff writer at Fundera, reporting on business financing, law, and news. Previously managing editor at Fit Small Business, she's also a licensed attorney who served as general counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup. She loves helping entrepreneurs launch, run, and grow their businesses.

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